Column: Secret’s out, hiking off the beaten path in autumn

'Hiking Arizona'

Talking to a newcomer to Arizona about ideas for hiking destinations, she expressed a preference for hiking “off the beaten path.” I understand her dilemma, “Where can I hike without running into hordes of people, yet hike somewhere that’s notable?”

One approach is to hike in the off season, such as Death Valley in July. No takers? Yet, that’s when most people hike below the Rim of the Grand Canyon and it’s pretty hot there too. Similarly, hiking in popular places in the middle of the week can be more rewarding since you’re less likely to run into a bunch of other hikers. The Bell Trail, off the Sedona I-17 turnoff, in the Verde Valley is a good example. Therefore, timing plays a big role in hiking “off the beaten path.” Distance is another factor.

SUMMER IS OVER

Are you as ready as I am for a change in seasons? Fall hiking means leaves are changing color and many fruits are in season. The newcomer I mentioned above is from Colorado, so she is more familiar than most with impressive displays of fall colors. That’s especially true in Yavapai County. There’s just not much to talk about around here, other than a few riparian sites where cottonwoods, box elder, and a few maple trees might catch your eye.

Based on a recommendation made by Marnie Uhl, CEO of the Prescott Valley Chamber of Commerce on her radio program, I recently ventured to the White Mountains to hike several notable sites. Places like the Blue Range Primitive Area, Bear Wallow Wilderness, Mount Baldy, and Escudilla all qualify as outstanding destinations that are well off the beaten path. Escudilla also offers an outstanding display of fall colors.

What creates a high quality “fall color display?” In a word, aspens. When you look at a grove of aspens, how many trees do you see? What looks like many separate trees is probably a single tree, sending up many shoots from the same root stock. That’s why they respond so well after a fire. They are just waiting for the flames to remove all those conifers, which are shading out the aspens. No fires, no aspens, no fall colors. That’s why places like Escudilla, Bear Wallow, and others like Mt. Charleston, Nevada, are so beautiful these days, recent fires have given the aspens their chance to grow and glow, beginning very soon.

Escudilla is also significant in that it is the site mentioned by Aldo Leopold where the grizzly bear and wolf both met their demise in the Southwest. The wolf has been reintroduced a little south of Escudilla however. He also talked about “thinking like a mountain,” based on his ecological observations centered on Escudilla. It is about 5-1/2 miles north of Alpine off Highway 191.

Trail 308 is a National Recreation Trail, covering about three miles to the summit where you’ll see the remains of a Forest Service lookout that gave its life for the cause of spotting and reporting wildfires. The views are incredible in all directions but there is no surface water. The elevation gain is about 1,100 feet topping out at 10,800 feet. Since this happens only once a year and you have to go some distance to find a great display of fall colors in Arizona, you’ll want to plan your outing sooner rather than later. Can there be anything more relaxing and awe inspiring than sitting in a grove of aspens hearing the leaves flutter and watching them float to the ground?

Ted Johnson is a columnist for The Daily Courier. Reach him by email at sportsdesk@prescottaz.com.